Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1997

Ah, we have now arrived at the year of the very first Oscar ceremony that I had watched, the one transformed me into an Oscar maniac. The ceremony was held on March 23, 1998. At the time I knew the Oscars were the major film awards, and I had watched parts of the ceremony from 1993 (when Deborah Kerr received an Honorary Oscar) and 1995 (when Babe won Best Visual Effects and Anne Frank Remembered won Best Documentary Feature). However, I didn't pay attention to it and didn't even know they were being held that night until I came downstairs and saw it playing on the TV. I came down around just as the show was starting, catching parts of Billy Crystal's opening movie when he inserts himself into the Best Picture nominees. It didn't mean much to me, since the only Best Picture nominee that I knew of was Titanic, which I hadn't seen since I elected to stay home when my family went to watch it. Still, even though I wasn't invested in any of the nominees, I decided to stay and watch the ceremony.

By then Titanic had already broken all box office records and had become a cultural phenomenon. As expected, it won awards after awards. It wasn't until Best Makeup that it suffered its first loss, to Men in Black, one film that I had seen. Either that or it was Best Supporting Actress, when the late Gloria Stuart lost to Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential. But as Titanic's win totals increased, my interest in the awards did so as well. I was drawn into the suspense and the presentation of the awards. (I wouldn't become focused on what the awards celebrated for a few more years, until I did the Pokemon Academy Awards.) My parents made me go to bed close to midnight as they were presenting the Best Director award, since it was a Monday night (really, Monday night?) However, I snuck into my parents room in time to watch James Cameron's infamous "I'm king of the world" speech, and stayed long enough to watch Titanic cap the night with its win in Best Picture, its 11th Oscar, tying it with Ben-Hur, which I had seen in sixth grade, for most awards.

I instantly became obsessed with the Oscars. I already liked movies but this took it to a new level. I quickly learned the names of all of the Best Picture winners and made it my goal to watch them all. I even started coming up with fake movies just so I can hold fictional Oscar-like ceremonies for them. (A practice I still do annually.) But the Best Animated Short category kind of fell by the wayside. I was aware of it, mostly because the winner was a film from the makers of Toy Story that was featured in Time magazine. However, it was still years before I became interested in the category.

Famous Fred
Young Sophie and Nick are mourning the death of their cat Fred from cat flu. Fred is a lazy old cat whose pastime is sleeping all day. They call him the Laziest Cat in the World. On the night after they buried Fred, they are waken up by the sound of cats. They find a whole community of cats present to mourn Fred. They are surprised to hear that their lazy cat Fred was the most popular feline singer in the entire world. Their guinea pig Kenneth, who served as Fred's manager, tells the story of Fred: how he developed into a singer, and the price of his celebrity. This musical short film is based off the children's book Fred by Posy Simmonds and adapted for television in Britain by Joanna Quinn. Quinn is the British animator known for her detailed art style and realistic character design. She had contributed the Wife of Bath's story to the Oscar nominated The Canterbury Tales, and one of her more famous films was Girl's Night Out, a film about a housewife going to see a male stripping act. It's hard to imagine that the same person who made that film made Famous Fred. Stylistically the two are relatively similar. Famous Fred has that same detailed animation, although with a smoother look, possibly to evoke the feel of the original book. It's pretty pleasing to the eyes. However, thematically the films are completely different. Girl's Night Out was a student film for adults while Famous Fred was meant for kids. However, while some other films aimed at children can speak to adults, Famous Fred never did get over that hump. Quinn did manage to squeeze in a rollicking birthday party scene (and a cameo by Beryl from Girl's Night Out). Don't get me wrong. I really liked the film. It was very cute and entertaining, but I never got over the fact that this felt more like an early morning PBS show than an Oscar nominated animated short film. The songs are adequate but nowhere close to being memorable. The voice acting is good, especially Tom Courtenay as Kenneth. Overall, it's a cute film that's good for the kids or whenever you want to watch something cute that doesn't require a lot of thinking.
Where Can I Watch It?

Geri's Game
An elderly man sets up a chess game in an empty park. After admiring his work, he timidly makes his first move. Then he gets up and walks around to the other side of the table where he becomes a spry old man. He continues the back and forth until it becomes painfully clear that the timid personality sucks at chess. Soon the timid personality is left with only his king. Can he pull off the surprise victory? Geri's Game is somewhat of a milestone for Pixar as it is their first film with a human main character. According to the Pixar website, the goal of the short was to "take human and cloth animation to new heights." It was a noble cause, considering almost ten years before Geri's Game they scared the cinematic world with the monster that is the Baby in Tin Toy. While the technology seems dated today, they were successful in their efforts. Old Geri is delightfully animated with a wide variety of facial expressions and two distinct personalities that come to life. Humans would come to take a much bigger role The animation of the cloth is something that viewers are much less likely to notice, but I am sure it is just as important for Pixar. I'm sure Pixar could have eventually come to the character and costume design of Brave without Geri's Game, but it might have taken it longer. The film itself is also a delight. The action starts out slowly, showing old Geri walking across the table in its entirety, but as the game picks up steam the transition is cut down until the two personalities become distinct characters cinematically, culminating in the shot where both Timid Geri and Spry Geri's hands are seen. Then comes the funny climax. The European soundtrack keeps the mood light. Spry Geri's laugh may get annoying, since he does it for practically half the film. However, it doesn't keep Geri's Game from becoming a Pixar classic.
Where Can I Watch It?
Most of the versions on YouTube are with alternate soundtracks. Ebaumsworld has a version that is pretty poor quality. It is also on the Pixar Shorts DVD, the DVD and Blu-Ray for A Bug's Life, and on iTunes.

Redux Riding Hood
The wolf is relatively successful, with a loving wife (even though she is a sheep), a good house, and a stable job. However, things are not as they seem, as he must deal with a case of full-blown PTSD that he's had for five years, ever since he had a famous run-in with Little Red Riding Hood. His wife suggested that he do something about it. While she possibly meant that he see a psychiatrist. However, he chose to go another route for closure. He makes a time machine and uses it to travel back to five years earlier and get Little Red Riding Hood once and for all. However, things don't ever go the way he would like. When I watched that first Oscar, Redux Riding Hood was a title that stuck with me, since I thought the title featured a clever reference to Redux (dexfenfluramine HCl), the hot new diet pill that was approved by the FDA in 1996 and pulled only a year later for its cardiovascular side effects. Unfortunately I later realized that it used the more standard definition of Redux, which means "to bring back". Now I know it for being yet another Oscar nominated film that for the longest time had fallen victim to the tyranny of Disney's revisionist history. It remained almost completely locked up for 14 years, but somehow director Steve Moore finally got the okay to post it, and man it feels good. The animation is good, with fluid character animation and backgrounds done with mixed media, giving the feel of Monty Python animation or the madcap ending to the Oscar winning It's Tough to Be a Bird (1969). The soundtrack was "composed" by jazz musician Bennie Wallace, and has a strong jazzy feel. Yet the best part is the film's story, which came from the pen of sitcom writer Dan O'Shannon, who wrote for shows like Modern Family and Cheers. His script includes loads of verbal as well as visual humor. The former is derived mostly from the snappy dialogue while the latter comes from the madcap slapstick, highlighted by the film's deranged montage at the end. The voice acting crew is full of stars like Michael Richards as the wolf, Mia Farrow as his long-suffering wife, along with veteran voice actors like June Foray, Jim Cummings, and Adam West. The cast really does a great job putting the script onto the screen. It's a terrific film that definitely deserves to be seen by the entire viewing public, even as a film about the effects of PTSD.
Where Can I Watch It?

Rusalka (The Mermaid)
An old monk lives with his young apprentice in a Russian monastery. One winter day, while going down to the river, the young apprentice rescues a female from the water. When he goes to get her a blanket, he finds that she is gone. He sees her again in the spring and together they begin a relationship. However, the old man has some hidden secrets of his own, and he believes they have come to haunt him. Can he rescue his pupil before it's too late? Rusalka is another paint on glass animation from Russian animator Alexandr Petrov (The Old Man and the Sea, My Love). It may not be as fluid as some of his later films, and some of the scenes are dark and confusing, but it is still the same detailed and beautiful works of art that you'd come to expect from a Petrov film. The story, however, is a different story if you are not familiar with Russian beliefs. I didn't know what a Rusalka was the first time I saw the film. I just looked at the English translation and was expecting something half person half fish. I was disappointed when the film ended and I didn't see any of that. As it turns out, the story is centered around the concept of Rusalka in the Slavic term rather than the idea of the mermaid that the Western world has come to hold after The Little Mermaid came out in 1989. Apparently Rusalka are spirits of women, usually jilted lovers, who kill themselves through drowning. Once I saw that definition the entire story makes sense. I still don't think that the story is as interesting as some of Petrov's later works, but to its credit it's got terrific pacing. There are several long and slow moving sequences but I didn't really find it boring, which is like the opposite of The Old Man and the Sea. The ending is quite strong as well. The music is nice, and the film is largely dialogue free so you can watch it in Russian and not have to worry about missing anything. Unless you don't know what a Rusalka is. Then you miss everything. But if you read this review first you will learn that, so you won't go in and get a bad first impression of this fine film from Petrov.
Where Can I Watch It?

La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons (The Old Lady and the Pigeons)
In suburban Paris, an emaciated French policeman stalks the street, taking food from obese American tourists. One day his life changes when he enters a park and sees pigeons too fat to fly. He sees an old lady who sits at a bench and throws cupcakes at them. He makes the fateful decision to dress up as a pigeon using feathers from a pigeon he abducted and visit the old lady's house to get the meals he desperately wants. The plan is a success, and he is able to eat to his heart's content every single day. It's like a dream come true for the man, but is it too good to be true? The Old Lady and the Pigeons is a film by French animator and comic artist Sylvain Chomet. Chomet is now best known for his Oscar nominated animated films The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, but this was his first animated film after working previously in animating for commercials. It's a chronicle of a man's descent into mental illness. As such is full of the sort of the borderline grotesque quirkiness that has come to define Chomet, so much so that it was even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. For example, this film is full of morbid obesity, seen not only in the pigeons and the main character, but also the bawdy American tourists that sandwich the film. There's the abducted pigeon who presents as a counterpart to the policeman during the montage in the middle. As the policeman gets fatter and fatter, the pigeon goes in the opposite direction. And then there's the climax, which is something else entirely. The animation is detailed, which in this case contributes to the atmosphere of this film, just because it highlights the bizarre events in the film. The film is dialogue free with the exception of the dimwitted ramblings of the American tourists at the beginning and the end, but is full of catchy French tunes that are quite similar to the soundtrack in Geri's Game. Overall, this is a well made short that is pretty funny as long as you can stomach the somewhat disturbing imagery.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, I guess I already clued in what won the Oscar in the introduction, but then again I've been posting a screenshot of the winner at the very top of every review so I'm not torn at spoiling the winner. After all, it's been decided almost 14 years ago. As far as the results from this year, as much as I like Redux Riding Hood for exceeding my expectations after 14 years of heartache, I'd still have to give my vote to Geri's Game. They're both terrific films with great animation and story, but Pixar's film wins out for being less meandering in the story. Still, you can't go wrong with any of these nominees.

My rankings (by quality)
Geri's Game > Redux Riding Hood > La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons > Rusalka > Famous Fred

My rankings (by preference)
Geri's Game > Redux Riding Hood > Famous Fred > La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons > Rusalka

1 comment:

  1. I first saw "Famous Fred" from a tape I rented at a video store years back and I sorta dig what Quinn did in it. It's certainly a far more juvinile work than what she might be best known for (when it's not tree-crapping bears selling toilet paper). I still thought it did fine on it's own and loved the paraells over the life of a certain "King of Rock & Roll" they spoofed in the story.

    I really don't have much to say about Geri's Game here since I have enjoyed that short fully anyway and nothing I would say would change people's minds anyway. It's just a well put-together film in my book. I always love the visual joke with the box stating "Hand-Crafted Pixar Shorts" rather than stating it was a Chess set.

    I didn't think much about Redux Riding Hood other than for what a few people have said about it on Usenet that made me wish I could have watched it back in '98 around oscar time. It was certainly well worth the wait for Steve Moore to finally put this up from his personal copy. The designer of the film (who's name escapes me) was hired by Moore without having any real experiences in the animation field, only that he did his work without any prior knowledge of the story or what was required, giving the film the very unconventional look we do not associate the Disney studio for. I also felt the entire film is pretty much inspired greatly from the work of Ward Kimball, one of the "9 Old Men" who's own personal work often involved wild collages and unique, inventive objects he created for art exhibits or seen in shorts like "It's Tough To Be A Bird" (I also loved "Dad... Can I Borry The Car?" if you ever find that short). Redux Riding Hood was part of a planned Direct-To-Video release composed of other fairy tales getting the "Redux" treatment, though only this and another short involving the Three Little Pigs was ever made. I'd still love to see the Pigs film if it pops up (also longer).

    Being way off-topic, I'm reminded of "La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons" getting namedropped in an opening song from a Mystery Science Theater 3000 special on the Oscars one year on the SciFi Channel just to have someone mention they do not have any clips to show of it so they moved on. Just thought I mention that as I enjoyed the little dig they made about it.